Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Of the essays I’ve read so far in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, the one on Madame Bovary was the most complex. Not only did I learn a lot about the novel, but I also got to peek in a window at Nabokov’s study style and passion for writing, translating and reading. His in-depth knowledge of the text reminds me that he believed we could never really read a text but only re-read it. It’s clear he knew the book practically by heart and had spent hours and hours analyzing scenes and conversations, diagramming character relationships and significant details. There are a few books I have read again and again, ones I believe I have nearly memorized, but Nabokov’s intimate knowledge of Madame Bovary made me want to go back to those books and look at them all over again, because surely there is more to see.


I also suspect he had a special appreciation for Flaubert because of Flaubert’s boldness in taking on an extremely taboo subject:


Indeed, the novel was actually tried in a court of justice for obscenity. Just imagine that. As if the work of an artist could ever be obscene. I am glad to say that Flaubert won his case. That was exactly a hundred years ago. In our days, our times…But let me keep to my subject.


Not that Nabokov would know anything about morality-based criticisms of a novel, oh no.


For this particular lecture, Nabokov doesn’t only focus on the actual text of Madame Bovary but he brings in a discussion of Flaubert’s letters to his then lover, Louise Colet, written while Flaubert was holed away in Normandy writing the novel. That added input adds a whole new dimension to understanding Flaubert’s intent. We often wonder whether great writers do things on purpose in their books, or if critics see things or find connections/allusions/hidden meanings the writer created by accident or maybe wasn’t fully aware of. The excerpts of these letters show that Flaubert knew exactly what he was doing at all times. And also that he worked very hard to construct his novel in a particular way according to a set of particular intentions.


Nabokov taught Madame Bovary to his students at Wellesley and Cornell using a translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling (the daughter of Karl Marx) which is available at Gutenberg. I don’t know how many other translations were around at the same time, but Nabokov has nothing but angry criticism for “the translators”. He went so far as to re-translate huge sections for his classes and made lists of mistranslated words.


One of his more interesting criticisms is when he says that the translator incorrectly translates Flaubert’s use of the French imparfait (the imperfect form of the past tense), a device which allows Flaubert to express the notion of uninterrupted time, things a person “used to do”, and any ruptures in that flow (all intentional constructs in his writing).



In Tostes Emma walks out with her whippet: “She would begin (not “began”) by looking around her to see if nothing had changed since the last she had been there. She would find (not “found”) again in the same places the foxgloves and wallflowers, the beds of nettles growing round the big stones, and the patches of lichen along the three windows, whose shutters, always closed, were rotting away on their rusty iron bars. Her thoughts, aimless at first, would wander (not “wandered”) at random…”


 According to Nabokov, Flaubert used the imparfait to fill the entire book with a sense of suspended animation, giving weight to Emma’s feeling of dreary monotony. That a translator would so casually overlook this aesthetic decision must have driven Nabokov insane.


Something Nabokov and I do not agree on is whether Charles knew about Emma’s infidelities. I mentioned this in my last post and after reading Nabokov’s essay I had to go back to the text to make sure I didn’t misunderstand something. But some time after Emma dies, Charles runs into Rodolphe (Emma’s first lover) in town and the two men go and drink a cider together. They’re talking but both men are looking at the other, just thinking of Emma. Suddenly Charles looks right at him and says, Je ne vous en veux pas, which means, I don’t hate you, or I don’t blame you. Flaubert, of course, turns the moment inside out by quickly switching to Rodolphe’s perspective and painting Charles in an awful, pathetic light – the same way Rodolphe treated him when he was secretly meeting with Emma.


I’m toying with the idea of picking up Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, another I read in college but have nearly forgotten by now. It might be worth it after learning so much about Flaubert’s writing technique from Nabokov.


Otherwise, I’ve got to read Longinus this week. And I started Richard Ford’s Wildfire, which is quite short and I think I’ll finish up this afternoon. I am relatively unfamiliar with Ford’s writing style except for one or two of his short stories. In this novel, he’s using the first person and writes these kind of serpentine sentences with lots of commas and movement to them. I like the technique and how it informs my understanding of the narrator. But more on that later!




One Response to “Nabokov on Madame Bovary”

  1. Jerome Jerome Jerome

    I read Nabakov’s translation of MB and it rocked!

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